HBO's The Last Of Us Rewrites The Story Of Its Most Disturbing Villains

This post contains major spoilers for episode 8 of "The Last of Us."

Everything happens for a reason, right? This week's episode of "The Last of Us" covers one of the most harrowing, memorable chapters of the original game. After a brief interlude to Ellie's (Bella Ramsey) past, we pick right back up to the 14-year-old taking care of a bedridden Joel (Pedro Pascal), still healing from his wound. Here, the story takes a bold reversal — for now, Ellie is the duo's protector, and it's up to her to make sure they survive this cruel winter.

While on the hunt for food, Ellie comes across David (Scott Shepherd) and James (Troy Baker, a familiar voice for gamers everywhere), two shady characters who claim to come from a larger group who make an offer. In exchange for the buck she's hunted, they offer her shelter and supplies. Without revealing her motives, Ellie asks for medicine. While James fetches what Ellie needs, she tries to remain in control by holding her rifle at David. Calm, yet not any less menacing, he explains how hard the winter season always hits his community.

David, as it turns out, has a special skill for telling half-truths. He sells himself as a preacher and leader to his community, yet eventually we find out he doesn't hold much faith in God. His group has food and shelter, yet they've been (unknowingly) surviving off of human meat. His men have died on patrol, and he knows it was all because of a man traveling with a little girl.

Though this is a mostly loyal adaptation of the winter chapter, this episode does make a crucial few changes to the most despicable characters Ellie and Joel encounter on their journey.

A more grounded take on the most harrowing chapter of the game

As a game, "The Last of Us" is committed to realism, as seen by its incredibly grounded characters and meticulously detailed graphics. This is my hot take, but while the winter chapter has always been effective and necessary for Ellie's character growth, it does take a temporarily tropey turn. Even decades into an apocalypse, it's hard to buy into the concept of a whole community (including women and children) willing to accept cannibalism as their main solution to a hunger crisis.

The backstory of David's group in the show is a lot easier to grasp in direct comparison. As the remnant survivors of a fallen Pittsburgh FEDRA QZ, his people have relocated to an abandoned mountain resort village. Willing to accept guidance and hope from an authority figure, David used his status as a preacher to quickly become the leader of this community. It all seems to be a more recent affair, versus the game, where David's group has seemed to occupy the mountains for years.

There's an interesting contrast here with Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and Maria's (Rutina Wesley) Jackson commune — where arts, education, and philosophy seem to thrive — David's entire method of control is reliant on a narcissistic image of himself as a religious figure. "He shall provide!" reads banners posted around public spaces. In the introduction of the episode, it's clear that this is a promise that David is struggling to keep. As a solution to keeping his people fed, David resorts to cannibalism. Instead of a widespread solution an entire group of people morally agrees with, it's now a secret that David and his confidante feed to their people.

David is a more realized, evil character in the HBO series

Of course, this is not to discredit the original level in the game, which is still one of the most celebrated and haunting moments in modern video games for good reason — but the HBO adaptation has found a more compelling and grounded angle to David's cult that highlights a moral degradation on an individual level having an effect on an entire community. Even in the late apocalypse, not everyone is as evil or compromised as David, a man disguising his nihilistic worldview and repackaging it to his "sheep." The human meat he feeds his community is now a symbolic extension of David and his worldview.

Ultimately, there is something even sleazier and darker about this iteration of David because he's closer to our own reality. While the game's David is well performed, the show's take on him is fully motivated and evil in a way that's more believable and identifiable. He's not the boogeyman, he's the secret creep in your neighborhood. In his past — as a disillusioned priest and a school teacher — there was a hunger for violence within him that was deeply repressed, the backdrop of the apocalypse merely awakened the worst side of him. That's also why he's sickly drawn to Ellie, a girl who has little connection with the world outside the act of violence and self-preservation.

Scott Shepherd's performance is perfectly calibrated here: a collected and gentle exterior that gradually crumbles into intensity and rage as Ellie fights her way out of his grasp. Ellie walks out of the burning restaurant and into Joel's arms as a survivor. Though she's killed before, peering into David's soul is something that will stay with her forever.